Considering the staggering expense of recording opera in the 1990s, it's hardly surprising that low-priced opera recordings of quality are usually reissues. Since the material is recycled, neither today's production costs nor the astronomical fees (and substantial royalties) now demanded by the most popular singers and conductors of traditional repertory are involved.
But not all highly accomplished opera artists working today command sky-high fees. There are those singers who are involved in period performance, and specifically, those who perform the operas of Handel and Rossini, most of which were unknown in this century until the period movement began to prove its appeal beyond a narrow specialist audience.
These thoughts are inspired by an immensely rewarding production on the super-budget Naxos label of Rossini's "Tancredi" (660037, two CDs), an opera seria that had virtually disappeared as early as the 1860s for lack of the kind of flexible vocalism it demanded.
Dramatically, "Tancredi" is utter nonsense, based on a drama by Voltaire whose plot doesn't bear recounting. The music, however, demands attention at every gorgeous turn.
For about 150 minutes, Rossini dishes out lush vocal phrases (long-lined melodies were never his forte) that tumble over one another in improbable profusion. The orchestration is brilliantly inventive, with licks for the solo winds equal to any in the composer's late operas, and choral writing that strongly suggests the glories to come, in Rossini's own music and in Verdi's. There's even a killer overture, replete with the thrilling crescendos that signal prime Rossini.
And in an opera of which no other authorized edition is currently available (although "Tancredi" was revived for Marilyn Horne, her CBS/Sony recording awaits reissue), where we might settle for good enough, Naxos gives us the best of everything, including price.
In the title role, Polish mezzo Ewa Podles, with her sexy, dark, covered middle register, proves a singer of striking expressive power and vocal range, flexible enough for the most demanding high-altitude fioritura the composer throws her way and for plumbing the contralto depths, which she does without resorting to ugly chest-voice distortions.
Podles' principal collaborators are the American tenor Stanford Olsen, a specialist in athletic belcanto, who is in freshest voice here, as is the best-known member of the cast, Korean soprano Sumi Jo (the Queen of the Night in Music Center Opera's recent "Zauberflote"), who chirps her way with merry abandon and dead-center accuracy through the role of the infinitely put-upon ingenue, Amenaide.
Instrumental and choral forces from, fittingly, the Belgian museum city of Brugge are efficiently directed--in this age of splendid Rossini vocalism we are, ironically, short of skilled Rossini conductors--by Alberto Zedda, a noted Rossini scholar and artistic director of La Scala.
This perhaps niggling reservation aside, Naxos' "Tancredi" not only represents the high point to date of recorded opera at a bargain price, but a high point of recorded Rossini at any price.
A much-better-known work, Verdi's magnificently dark "Simon Boccanegra," should be irresistible to audiences, impresarios and the singing superstars. But, possibly because its best music is reserved for the titular baritone and his quasi-nemesis, Fiesco, who is a bass, stagings are relatively infrequent. Any book on opera will tell you what a compellingly dramatic and humane work "Simone Boccanegra" is. But those aren't selling adjectives.
"Simon Boccanegra" has had a spotty recording history too, with each of its half-dozen modern productions as rich in demerits as positive qualities. The latest recording (Discover International 920225/6, two CDs), deserves a listening if for no other reason than its ridiculously low selling price. But it also happens to be artistically competitive with the best, flawed as that may be.
The conductor is Alexander Rahbari, one of the early Naxos artists, who has now started his own super-budget label, Discover International, in Belgium (hardly a bargain paradise, yet, oddly, the locale of both recordings discussed in this column). Rahbari's conducting of the Orchestra and Chorus of the Belgian Radio and Television has plenty of punch in the public scenes, welcome delicacy in the intimate exchanges in which the opera abounds. He is clearly a man who knows his theatrical business.
The title role is affectingly projected by the seasoned Romanian baritone Eduard Tumagian, who out-sings and out-characterizes some of his higher-priced rivals. As the young lovers of the piece, Miriam Gauci sings with a wealth of dramatic involvement and considerable stridency and tenor Giacomo Aragall, a quasi-stellar operatic attraction a couple of decades ago, compensates with passion and the right idiomatic stuff for what he now lacks in vocal honey.
Peter Mikulas projects Fiesco's anguish believably, with an appealingly warm, secure basso cantante , while Vicente Sardinero, himself a veteran Boccanegra, turns in a flavorful piece of work in the smaller role of the treacherous Paolo.
Italian librettos only, in both instances, but summaries and historical notes in English are provided.